Apple’s System Apps

One recurring sentiment I’ve seen a few times is that some people wish they could delete built-in iPhone apps that they never use, like, say, Stocks or Weather or whatever. What they can do now with iOS 4, though, is stash these never-used undeletable apps together in a folder.

The idea of being able to delete these apps is trickier than you may think, though. If you were able to delete them, how would you get one back if you subsequently changed your mind? With App Store apps, you can always re-download a deleted app from the App Store. Not so with the built-in system apps. And obviously, there are some apps — Settings being the prime example — that you should never be allowed to delete.

What Apple could do, in theory, is add a section to the Settings app where you could hide unwanted system apps from the home screen. But that’s un-iPhone-like. You’d then wind up with two ways to remove apps from the home screen — one for App Store apps and another for system apps. It’s simpler and more obvious for there to be one and only one way to do it, and simply leave the system apps as unremovable. I think the new “folders” feature is the best you home screen neatniks are going to get.

Users aren’t the only ones who are constricted by iOS’s system apps being tied to the system as a whole. Apple is too — updates to these apps only ship as part of an entire iOS system update. A bug fix in one system app — Mail, Safari, Weather, whatever — doesn’t ship to users until the next release of the entire OS. When the iPad debuted with iBooks as an App Store app rather than a built-in system app, I at first assumed it was a matter of international publishing negotiations — iOS devices ship to far more countries than those in which Apple has (thus far) negotiated e-book rights. That may be part of the reason, but clearly another is that it allows Apple to ship updates independently of the OS. The iPad is still on OS 3.2, but iBooks, as of today, is now on version 1.1.

What got me thinking about this wasn’t iOS 4, but rather Mac OS X. I was listening to Dan Benjamin’s The Conversation podcast episode 18, with guests Dave Nanian and Dan Moren talking about the news and announcements from WWDC. Regarding FaceTime, Nanian observed that he wished FaceTime on the iPhone could connect to iChat on the Mac, enabling iPhone-to-Mac video calls.

Sounds good, and one hopes Apple has that on the drawing board, but I wonder if it might not have to wait for Mac OS X 10.7? Apple tends not to release major feature updates to Mac OS X’s system apps except in major OS updates. The same goes for Mail — I bet the next version of Mac OS X Mail is going to look a lot like the new MobileMe web mail, which itself looks a lot like the iPad’s Mail except MobileMe shows three columns at once. But that sort of update to Mac OS X Mail isn’t likely to arrive until 10.7, and 10.7 isn’t likely to arrive for at least another year.

The only exception I can think of is Safari. Safari is clearly a system app — it ships with the system, and updates to Safari include updates to the system-wide WebKit framework. But Apple releases major new versions of Safari (and, thus, WebKit) independently of updates to Mac OS X as a whole.

With Mac OS X, the problem with decoupling system app updates from the system itself may come down to marketing. When Apple advertises how many new features are in a major OS update like 10.5, 10.6, or 10.7, many, if not most, of those features are not in the “system” per se, but rather in the applications that ship with the system. Major updates to Mail (with a MobileMe-style three-column layout) and iChat (with FaceTime support), issued now for Mac OS X 10.6.x, would take a lot of punch out of 10.7 next year.

As Mac OS X matures, though, and major updates to the system as a whole become less frequent, it might make sense for Apple to start decoupling these application updates from system updates.

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